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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony No.3 in d minor (1893-6, rev.1906)* [93:10]
Symphony No.1 in D (1884-8, rev.1906)** [51:23]
Maureen Forrester* (contralto); The California Boys’ Choir; members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale; Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta**
rec. Binyanei Ha’ooma, Jerusalem, December, 1974 (No.1); Royce Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, March, 1978 (No.3). ADD.
Texts and translations included.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4801133 [69:55 + 78:54] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


This Eloquence reissue is welcome, if only because it makes available two decent recordings of important Mahler works at an even more reasonable price than in their previous incarnation on Double Decca. In fact it’s more than that. It also provides a neat answer to what to do with the Third Symphony – rather too long to fit onto one CD, even in the fleetest-footed performances – and looking somewhat forlorn and poor value if spread over two CDs without coupling. In his comparative review of versions of the Third Symphony, Tony Duggan wrote:

This ... “Double Decca” set ... couples a reasonable account of the First Symphony with Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic so clinching its bargain status. Mehta’s Third is a ripe and vivid account, well played and brightly recorded, though not in the front rank. 

... which just about sums up my reaction, too. Alex Russell recommended that earlier Double Decca set as the ideal follow-up to his review of a 2006 concert performance of the Third by the LSO under Paavo Järvi. 

If you’re looking for budget-price versions of the Mahler symphonies, without wishing to purchase complete sets, choice is somewhat limited. If you are prepared to buy the complete set, Rafael Kubelík is your man on a 10-CD set (DG 4637382, around £60 in the UK) – though advertised as ‘10 Symphonies’, be aware, however, that No.10 is represented only by the Adagio. If you want a boxed set with the Cook completion of No.10, it has to be Riccardo Chailly (12 CDs, Decca 4756686, around £40). Tim Perry recently made the EMI Bertini set his Bargain of the Month (11 CDs 3402382 – see review.) 

Kubelík’s version of the First Symphony, coupled with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, used to be available as a first-class bargain on DG’s Privilege label; it’s still good value, and it’s still my recommended version, even now that it has transferred to the more expensive DG Originals (4497352). At least it now comes with notes, whereas the Privilege issue had none. This is the benchmark against which I have measured the Eloquence reissue of Mehta’s performance. 

In Mehta’s hands the opening to the first movement arises delicately from near-inaudibility – if anything, he is tenderer than Kubelík here – and the tempo and volume grow imperceptibly (allmählich und unmerksam, as the score says) into the faster main section until the music develops just the right swagger with the echo of the song Ging heut’ Morgen übers Feld. Mahler is a very interventionist composer, with plenty of directions as to how the music should be performed. Wie ein Naturlaut says the direction at the head of this movement and that is exactly how it develops here, like a sound of nature. When the trumpets are directed to enter In sehr weiter Entfernung gestellt, that is exactly how they sound, as if from a very great distance, but when towards the end of the movement, Spring bursts upon us, they really whoop with joy. As far as tempo is concerned, there is a remarkable degree of agreement: Kubelík takes 14:31 for this movement, Mehta 14:42. 

In the remaining movements, too, Mehta is very close to but marginally slower than Kubelík’s tempi; only in the Finale is there any significant discrepancy (18:22 against Kubelík’s 17:40) The Ländler second movement closely observes all Mahler’s markings in the score to the extent that one could almost listen to the performance and predict what those directions were: the main direction at the head of the movement, Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell, with powerful movement but not too quick, very aptly sums up Mehta’s performance, while the funeral march in the third movement, to the tune of Frère Jacques or Bruder Martin, also delivers what it says on the box in its measured stateliness without dragging – feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen. The Eloquence notes describe this movement as ‘spooky’, which very aptly fits Mehta’s performance. 

Stürmisch bewegt is the direction at the head of the score of the Finale and later energisch and mit grosser Wildheit, and here again, Mehta observes Mahler’s directions to the letter – this certainly is a wild and stormy opening until the storm dies down and the performance again matches the direction to be very song-like, sehr gesangvoll. The tempest reasserts itself at fig. 22 but bird-song again heralds the calm after the storm in an almost imperceptible manner, beautifully realised in this performance, as is the triumphal conclusion.

Neither the DG nor the Decca Eloquence recording employs the old nickname Titan for this symphony but its powerful nature and the impact it had on its first audience are very well conveyed by both. I enjoyed the Mehta recording much more than I had expected and I had to play the Kubelík immediately afterwards to reassure myself that it still (just) has the edge – and don’t forget that it comes with Fischer Dieskau’s performance of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen

The Mehta and Kubelík recordings are of more or less the same vintage; the Kubelík dates from six years earlier, but both ADD recordings sound very well in digital format. I should add that others hear the DG sound differently, finding it too close and boxy. Tony Duggan much preferred Kubelík’s live recording on Audite (95.467) in his comparative review of the First. I note that this and another recent Eloquence issue which came in the same batch of review discs now use the SBS encoding formerly employed for the European Eloquence recordings. I mention this, not because it bothered me at all, but because I know that this kind of tinkering is anathema to many audio enthusiasts. 

We are spoiled for good performances of the Third Symphony when, not long ago, only Horenstein’s Unicorn recording (mid price, UKCD2006-7, also available as a 320k mp3 download from theclassicalshop.net) was really worth considering – it’s still one of Tony Duggan’s top two choices in his comparative review of versions of this symphony. The other is Barbirolli on BBC Legends BBCL4004-7. Several of the BBC Legends recordings have appeared on the new Passionato download website but not this one at the time of writing.

Claudio Abbado has rather cornered the market for this work – first with the Vienna Philharmonic on a DG import (4107152, also in a 12-CD box set, 4470232), then live with the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 4715022) and on DVD with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Medici Arts 2056338). At less than full price, Haitink’s Concertgebouw recording on Philips Originals (2 CDs, 4757564, with Das klagende Lied) has also been consistently well received. 

Like Haitink and Abbado, Mehta has recorded the Third Symphony several times, most recently on a live Farao SACD recording; his versions may not be quite on a par with Abbado’s, but he shares a great deal of Abbado’s reputation for objectivity and Haitink’s with the Concertgebouw for sensible tempi. If there is little to set the pulse racing, there is also very little to provoke strong critical rejection of the kind which in some quarters greeted Haitink’s 1990 Berlin Philharmonic recording. 

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of having a large and somewhat disorganised CD collection is the inability always to lay one’s hands on what one wants. At the moment, the slot where Abbado’s Mahler 3 should have fitted is empty and I don’t know where the CDs are, so I can’t make the detailed comparison I’d hoped to. I’m having to work from memory of this and the Unicorn LP version of the Horenstein recording. 

Though he later withdrew the title for the whole work, Das glückliche Leben, ein Sommernachtstraum, and the subtitles for each movement, an ideal performance captures both Mahler’s belief in the joy of life and the dreamlike state of human perception, as expressed in the Nietzsche poem which Mahler sets in the fourth movement. That ideal performance, therefore, must succeed in faithfully rendering the notes and the directions in the score – the ‘easy’ part – and the sense of ultimate unreality. Mahler spoke of the work as containing “secrets so profound they are perhaps glimpsed only in dreams.” Judged on those terms, no conductor could ever fully succeed; how close does Mehta come, bearing in mind that Terry Barfoot, like most other reviewers, felt that his Farao recording fell some degree short of the ideal (see review)? 

That Farao recording is a good six minutes longer than this earlier LAPO version where Mehta’s timings hover around the mean of other well-regarded versions. In the opening movement, at 33:07 he’s right in the middle of Haitink’s Concertgebouw performance (32:15) and Boulez (33:36) – a remarkable degree of unanimity over such a long movement and, surely, just about right: Haitink’s newer Chicago recording at 35:14 and Bychkov’s (Avie) at 35:12 are surely just a little too slow. DG split the VPO/Abbado recording of each movement of this symphony into small segments but, if my maths and my memory are correct, he, too, takes a tad too long here. 

Mehta’s opening is very powerful, achieving just the right mixture of elation and menace, ably assisted by the recording – analogue but still very impressive; it would surely have received a D for demonstration class in the old Stereo Record Guide. This is no more conventional pastoral music than Vaughan Williams belongs to that so-called ‘cow-pat school’ or than the poetry of Edward Thomas is just about nettles. 

Though slower than Haitink’s Concertgebouw recording, Mehta is faster than just about every other subsequent performance and this long first movement never outstays its welcome. Bearing in mind that he had few templates to work on other than Horenstein’s version – and Horenstein is actually a few seconds slower, at 33:28 to Mehta’s 33:07 and the Concertgebouw/Haitink’s 32:15 – it’s remarkable how right Mehta sounds here. Mahler originally intended this opening movement to represent the impact of Dionysus on the onset of Summer, later changing the tutelary deity to Pan. Dionysus or Bacchus, of course, was famous for the madness which he inspired in his devotees – in the Æneid the rejected Dido raves through the streets in uncontrolled and destructive behaviour like a follower of Bacchus: 

saeuit inops animi totamque incensa per urbem 
bacchatur, qualis commotis excita sacris
Thyias, ubi audito stimulant trieterica Baccho
orgia nocturnusque uocat clamore Cithaeron.

[And impotent of mind, she roves the city round./Less wild the Bacchanalian dames appear,/When, from afar, their nightly god they hear,/And howl about the hills, and shake the wreathy spear. IV.300-4, with Dryden’s translation.]

... and Pan gave his name to the word panic, so this is not meant to be comfortable music and Mehta certainly gets the point and conveys it to us. 

When Summer truly arrives with whooping of horns, we appreciate it all the more for Mehta’s refusal to sanitise what has gone before. The only serious criticism I have is that he does not always hold the various sections of the movement together without discontinuity, but some of the blame for that must surely lie at Mahler’s own door. I can’t wholly agree with the statement in Raymond Tuttle’s notes that this movement never feels fragmentary thanks to Mahler’s mastery of the sonata form.

Otherwise the notes on both symphonies in the booklet are accurate and informative – far better than is usually offered at this price, even including the texts and translations of Nietzsche’s Zarathustras Nachtlied in the fourth movement and the Knaben Wunderhorn song in the fifth movement. 

In the second movement, tempo di menuetto, Mehta is a trifle slow at first and inclined to the occasional hint of Schmalz in places, but this did not seriously affect my enjoyment of his performance. For the movement overall, he is a whole minute slower than Horenstein or Boulez, but exactly equal to Haitink. The third movement juxtaposes the cuckoo of spring and the nightingale of summer but, again, the music is hardly Bambi-esque, completely unlike our sentimental view of the cuckoo as harbinger of spring, or Handel’s Cuckoo and Nightingale organ concerto. Mahler can hardly have known the Middle English debate poem between these two birds, once ascribed to Chaucer, in which the nightingale (and the poet, probably Clanvowe) berate the cuckoo for his harsh tones, but the mood here is hardly harmonious, even amid the ‘resolution’ at the end of the movement: 

And than herde I the Nightingale say,
Now, gode Cukkow! go som-where away,
And let us that can singen dwellen here;
For every wight escheweth thee to here,
Thy songes be so elenge, in good fay!’

[Than I heard the nightingale say “Now, good cuckoo, go away somewhere and let us that know how to sing remain here; for everyone tries to avoid hearing you; your songs are truly so awful”, ll.111-15] 

Maureen Forrester sings well in the fourth movement but doesn’t efface memories of Jessye Norman’s splendid performance. Otherwise, Mehta and his performers faithfully convey what Raymond Tuttle’s notes aptly describe as the near-motionlessness of this movement, as if we are at what T.S. Eliot calls the still point of the turning world, caught between the first two Noble Truths of the Buddha, the truth of suffering and the truth of the cessation of suffering. The need to get up and change to CD2 at the end of this movement came as a real wrench, so deeply involved had I become in the performance. What did we do in the LP era? A 78s performance of this symphony would have been a series of wrenches. 

In the short fifth movement the contrast between the California Boys’ Choir and Forrester’s mature voice is well brought out. I’ve always thought this movement an oddity which should have been transferred to the Fourth Symphony, where it would have worked well with other material originally intended for the Third, but the performers here make a good case for it. 

The Finale again receives a fine performance; it’s hardly surprising to learn from the ‘home’ of these Eloquence recordings at Buywell.com that this movement was recorded in a single take. There is a real danger of any performance of this movement falling into sentimentality – Mahler’s markings calmly and with feeling denote the Scylla and Charybdis into which performances may fall – but Mehta avoids both pretty effectively. Raymond Tuttle’s comparison with Bruckner and Wagner (especially Parsifal) offers an especially apt description of Mehta’s treatment of this elongated slow movement. At 23:16 he is once again right in the middle of the range of timings for this movement, from Haitink’s 22:04 with the Concertgebouw to his 24:03 with the Chicago Symphony and Bychkov’s surely over-long 25:46. Did the composer of the popular song I’ll be loving you crib from this movement? If so, he captured the key to its effective performance: of all St Paul’s virtues, agápē, caritas or spiritual love is the greatest. 

Once again, as with the First, I was surprised and pleased in general with Mehta’s performance of the Third and pleased with the recording quality. If that elusive Abbado recording doesn’t turn up, this may well become my version of choice, though I’m also tempted to renew my acquaintance with the Horenstein, perhaps by downloading it from theclassicalshop.net, in which case I promise a review of it. If it seems as if I’ve warmed to Mehta’s performances as the review developed, that’s precisely what happened as I listened to these CDs. 

If you’re looking for bargain versions of the other symphonies, Klemperer’s version of No.2, the Resurrection Symphony still sounds very well (EMI 5672352): I’m not normally a great fan of Klemperer, but I’ll gladly make an exception for his Resurrection Symphony – despite his deserved reputation for slow tempi, he gets it all on one CD – and for his Beethoven (Eroica Symphony and Fidelio) and his Mozart (Zauberflöte). 

For No.4 George Szell is excellent on Sony SBK46535 (with Frederica von Stade and Andrew Davis in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen). I’m going to be unhelpful and reject all the cheapest versions of No.5 in favour of Bernstein’s mid-price DG account (4776334 – be warned: this version is also listed with its full-price catalogue number) and for the later symphonies I’ll report back when I’ve absorbed the LSO Live versions of Nos. 6 and 7 from Valery Gergiev: my favourite version of No.6, Szell again on SBK47654, seems no longer to be available. 

I must make one other recommendation: the Janet Baker/Bernard Haitink version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde on another Australian Eloquence CD, 4681822.

Brian Wilson


 


 


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